Monday, September 5, 2016

And thus does the 1960s counterculture arrive at its natural nadir

The irony is rich indeed. The founders and original attendees of the Burning Man "festival" in the 1980s fancied themselves as offering humankind a viable alternative to bourgeois decadence, but the foundation they established was nothing but.

And now, as with every other supposed "struggle against the power" in post-American society, it crashes and burns in a cacophony of clashing factions and feral-animal behavior:

It is supposed to be a utopian vision of peace and love but this year's Burning Man Festival has been marred by "hooligans" carrying out a "revolution against rich parasites".
The festival plays out each year in Nevada's Black Rock Desert where 70,000 people build a city in a week, burn a giant wooden effigy of a man, and then restore the arid playa to its original state.
In recent years it has become popular with Silicon Valley millionaires, and billionaires. Luxurious so-called "plug-n-play" camps have sprung up which use hired staff like cooks, builders and security, and allow international jetsetters to drop in for quick visits.
Many traditional "Burners" claim that is a betrayal of the spirit of "radical self-reliance" that is a cornerstone of the festival, which began in 1986.
As anger boiled over one camp called White Ocean, which hosts high profile DJs on a state-of-the-art stage, became the focus of anger.
The camp first made an appearance at Burning Man three years ago and its founders included the British DJ Paul Oakenfold and the son of a Russian billionaire. 
While the camp was holding its "White Party", at which revelers dress all in white and listen to techno music, it was attacked by vandals who flooded it with water and cut power lines.
In a dismayed post on Facebook camp leaders said: "A very unfortunate and saddening event happened last night at White Ocean, something we thought would never be possible in our Burning Man utopia.
"A band of hooligans raided our camp, stole from us, pulled and sliced all of our electrical lines leaving us with no refrigeration and wasting our food, and glued our trailer doors shut.
"They vandalised most of our camping infrastructure and dumped 200 gallons of potable water flooding our camp."
Of course, all of this modern-era "festival" stuff has its roots in the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which showcased the hippie bands of the San Francisco Bay area as well as up-and-coming second-wave British Invasion acts, and also represented the full flowering of folk-rock.

The organizers of that event, record-label impresario Lou Adler, publicist Derek Taylor, and Mamas and the Papas leader John Phillips, thought the time was ripe for rock and roll to have festivals similar to the models provided by the jazz and folk festivals that had been presented at Newport for many years.

And they did a good job, at least relative to the clogged highways, downed fences and sanitation debacles that characterized subsequent festivals.

Still, as James Miller points out in Flowers in the Dustbin - still, for my money, the most grown-up take on rock history yet written -  the real action was at the bar backstage, where eager execs from Warner Brothers, Columbia and the other big labels of the day clamored to sign any acts that did not yet have contracts. Rock was from that moment on going to be much more of a corporate affair.

A notable Monterey moment was blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield's exuberant address to the audience right before the set his band at the time, The Electric Flag, played.

Here, I have to tread carefully, as I still hold Bloomfield in the highest regard. A Jewish kid who'd had a pampered upbringing in a northside suburb of Chicago, he was introduced to the blues  - in person, at the clubs on the south side, by his family's black maid - about the time of his bar mitzvah, and he immersed himself in it. He became real friends with Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams, and by the time he had become a recording artist, his playing reflected an exquisite combination of genuine feeling - soul, in the richest sense of the term - and a scholarly understanding of the lineage to which he had hitched himself.

Still, on that stage at Monterey, in his customary over-heatedness (he was a speed freak), he got a little too gooey in his hyperbole about how groovy it was to see his generation coming together in such a loving way.

Of course, he was at the epicenter of the Summer of Love, so perhaps he deserves some slack.

But, as I say, he consciously chose to plunge himself into the world of barbecue joints and high-rise tenements, which his hippie audiences were not wrong to perceive as imparting an air of authenticity to his artistry. But he was actually a product of the upper-upper-middle class.

Sort of a microcosm of the hippie path, one might say. And therein lies a truth that must be examined: The hippie ethos, with its tribalism, mysticism and prioritization of a "laid back" approach to the human condition, has never been able to sustain itself. It's  somewhat cliche way to put it, but every wave of hippies has come up against the need to pay rent and the gas bill, to think through - or choose not to think through - the societal issues of the day, to grapple with the appearance of love, marriage and children in their lives.

Oh, and let us remember the moment that the original wave of rock festivals was doomed to peter out: when the Hell's Angels beat a young man to death with a pool cue right in front of the stage while the Rolling Stones played, grimly appropriately enough, "Gimme Shelter," at the Altamont festival in December 1969.

Subsequent waves signaled the increasing descent of the counterculture into factions. Perhaps most notably, the "womyn's festivals" that were a big deal in the 1970s and 80s found themselves dealing with squabbles between lesbians and straight feminists, as well as meat-eaters and vegetarians.

And now, we have a "techno village" ransacked at Burning Man.

We might have seen this coming. Here is an account from 2014 of just what flower power had morphed into in the twenty-first century:

Sex between ‘Burners’, as festival-goers are known, is known variously as ‘dust love’ or ‘tent trysts’, and old hands suggest it is simply ‘selfish’ to stick to monogamy. Public nudity, especially by women, is actively encouraged, while orgies — or at the very least partner swapping, if not threesomes — have become just as much a feature of Burning Man as the ceremonial torching of a huge wooden effigy of a man to celebrate the summer solstice.
Group sex is actively encouraged at so-called ‘theme camps’ — giant tent complexes where free bars encourage visitors to loosen up and participate. A popular venue is the so-called ‘Orgy Dome’, run by a group calling itself And Then There’s Only Love, though conventional notions of love are hardly what’s fostered inside its giant dome tent.
It bills itself as a 24-hour ‘sex positive consensual space where all can love and be loved’. Helpfully, the Orgy Dome offers free towels and sheets, but asks visitors to clear up after themselves in line with the festival’s ‘no waste’ eco-credentials.
As well as old-fashioned orgies, it offers classes on sadomasochism and group erotic massage. Thursdays are Unicorn Night, for couples seeking a threesome, while Saturdays are Scream, which invites the courageous to ‘join a room of moans — prizes to the loudest’.
The Orgy Dome is hardly alone. There is also a ‘Group Sex Bus’, the ‘Sex Libido Lounge’, and a Canadian-run club with an unprintable name where judges give points to amorous couples for ‘style’ and ‘inventive poses’.
But perhaps the richest symbolism of all is the icon for the entire gathering. For the entire existence of this spectacle, the point has been to burn down the humanity that distinguishes our species from those without souls.

It just takes on its most concentrated form in the Nevada desert every summer, but one can find the phenomenon everywhere these days.

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